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From the New World
The collected stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer

This is quite an undertaking by the Library of America — just under 200 stories, including 13 previously uncollected ones, in three overflowing volumes. But then, Isaac Bashevis Singer was an amazingly prolific writer. This endlessly entrancing anthology represents just one area of his output, which also includes novels, essays, and plays, though it’s the medium in which he’s still best known and most beloved.

Singer occupies a unique position among 20th-century writers. He grew up in Poland, the son of a Hasidic rabbi and a rabbi’s daughter — first in a village called Leoncin, then in Warsaw. He came to New York in the mid ’30s to escape Hitler (not everyone in his family was so lucky), yet for the rest of his life — he died in 1991, 10 days after his 87th birthday — he continued to write in Yiddish, so all the stories contained here are translations. (The long list of translators include his wife, Alma, his nephew Joseph, and Singer himself working in collaboration with others.) So despite more than half a century of living in New York and Florida, an immense American readership, and a long list of American dramatizations of his work for both the stage and the screen (the best is Paul Mazursky’s 1989 movie of his masterly novel Enemies, A Love Story), Singer never relinquished his membership in the Old World. That’s the world he struggled against in his youth, when he felt, like the narrator of "Guests on a Winter Night," listening to his rebellious older brother dispute with his Hasidic parents, "I was always on his side. I wanted to cut off my sidelocks, put on a short jacket, study Polish, Russian, German, and learn what makes a train go, how to build a telephone, a telegraph, a balloon, a ship."

Little wonder that a recurring theme in his stories (and his novels, too) is the rocky and often unsuccessful transition from old to new. In "The Key," a widow sees her transformed Manhattan neighborhood — and, indeed, life without her husband — as a landscape so alien and menacing that when she locks herself out of her apartment, she spends the night on the street rather than ask the assistance of neighbors or the super. Singer captures the guarded attitude of European-Jewish immigrants following the Holocaust in a remarkable passage from "The Son": "Each one’s eyes asked with disappointment: Is this America? The girl with the number on her arm angrily shook her head. The whole world was one Auschwitz." And in one of his most beautiful early tales, "The Little Shoemakers," an aging shoemaker — from the Polish village of Frampol, a favorite Singer setting — finally follows his sons to America, where they’ve become successful, but he remains remote, resolutely unassimilated. The story ends, as not many of Singer’s do, in a sweet moment of harmony. The old man finds his way back to his children when he takes up his old equipment and his sons sit alongside him in his new workshop, re-creating the atmosphere of their village childhood.

Singer keeps faith with his origins when he invokes the structure and the humor of the folk fable in stories like "Gimpel the Fool," "Getzel the Monkey," "The Beggar Said So," and "Two Weddings and a Divorce." Often they include supernatural elements — "The Mirror," "Two Corpses Go Dancing," "From the Diary of One Born" and a number of others are told from the point of view of a demon (or of Satan himself). Singer’s relationship to the otherworldly is rarely simple, though — the climax of "The Stranger from Cracow," where a devil drives an entire village to destruction, recalls Hawthorne’s "Young Goodman Brown," and "Something Is There" is about a rabbi who loses his faith. The protagonist of "A Crown of Feathers" becomes a Christian, only to return to Judaism years later; both conversions are provoked by visitations from the dead grandparents who raised her, and even at the end of her life, she’s unsure which — if either — was really a demon tempting her into hell. Even Singer’s modern stories may wander onto a magical plane. In "Hanka," the narrator — who is, as in many of his stories, Singer himself — admits to an audience at a talk that every experience he’s ever had with spirits has been ambiguous, yet he’s grown more and more convinced of their existence as he’s aged. Then he sees a woman in the crowd he once met in Buenos Aires, half fell in love with, and ended up suspecting was a ghost. "I looked again and she had vanished," he writes. "No, it had been a hallucination. It lasted only one instant. But I will brood about this instant for the rest of my life."

The past is forever alive in these stories, the modern ones as well as those set in early-20th-century villages where life goes on as it has for centuries. A typical narrative set-up places Singer in a cafeteria on the Lower East Side, or a newspaper office, or his apartment, when a man or a woman approaches him (or, in "A Telephone Call on Yom Kippur," phones him), asks him something like "Are you the writer?", and, insistent as the sailor in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," begins to unravel a complicated story with its roots in the Europe Singer has never really left behind. Or else he travels to a foreign country, perhaps on a lecture tour. He’s in Lisbon in "Sabbath in Portugal." Unable to book a room anywhere in the city, he calls a number his publisher gave him and winds up at dinner with a gentile family who serve him a Shabbat dinner. It turns out that the host is descended from Jews who held clandestinely to their faith during years of persecution. And that isn’t all: Singer looks in the face of his hostess and, to his astonishment, finds that "She resembled my first love, Esther, whom I had never dared to kiss, and who had been shot by the Nazis in 1943." He decides, finally, that Esther arranged this meeting with the Portuguese family so that she could come to him once more.

You don’t expect "Sabbath in Portugal" to turn into a love story, but Singer wrote all kinds of love stories. Love is the real demon that maddens men and women — and, as one of his characters observes, "the forces that drive us mad have all the time in the world." In "Not for the Sabbath," a woman throws away her life for a brute after he whips her in public. In "The Third One," a wife takes as her lover a man who is actually enamored of her husband. In "Taibele and Her Demon," a man pretending to be a demon charms his way into the bed of a pious young widow. In "The Unseen," a man divorces his wife for a servant; when the servant deserts him, he shows up at his wife’s door. She has remarried, but a combination of pity and undying affection leads her to hide the poor schlemiel in a ruin on her husband’s property, where she sneaks him food and blankets. "Two" is about a pair of young men who abandon their wives to live together, one in woman’s dress. The main character of the celebrated "Yentl the Yeshiva Boy" (played by Barbra Streisand in the 1983 film musical, a considerably better adaptation than Singer himself gave it credit for) is a young woman brought up by her father, against Old World traditions, to be a Talmudic scholar. When he dies, she goes into drag, enrolls in a yeshiva, and falls in love with her study partner, Avigdor. This turn of events wrecks both their lives and that of the proper maiden Avigdor was once engaged to, whom Yentl (in the guise of the yeshiva boy Anshel) marries. The hero of "Powers" is the victim of a lovestruck — and possessive — dog.

There are many, many other examples, but "The Cabalist of East Broadway" is among the most moving. And it has perhaps Singer’s most charming love scene. The writer Joel Yabloner and a Hebrew teacher named Deborah Soltis meet over a period of 20 years to discuss Hebrew literature, but — like Singer and Esther — they never so much as kiss. The closest they come is bumping heads once over a dictionary; then, at Yabloner’s uncharacteristically playful suggestion, "The two lovers exchanged reading glasses, but he couldn’t read with hers and she couldn’t read with his. So they replaced their own glasses on their own noses — and that was the most intimate contact the two ever achieved." Who but Isaac Bashevis Singer could have envisioned such a scene?

Issue Date: August 13 - 19, 2004
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